On the current version of the popular T-V show, The Voice, one of Blake Shelton’s selectees, Spensha Baker, is a gospel-trained singer who loves country music. She also wants a career singing in the genre.
Clearly, it is still a surprise to see and hear African American female singers rock country music, although Blues and Country are indelibly related, according to both history and the legend, Ray Charles. That is not and has not been a trend, though it also is not as much of a rarity as it would first seem to be. Granted, just about the same can be said of African American men in country music, although there have been several more break-out male stars in the genre than there have been females, including Ray Charles, Charley Pride, and currently, Darius Rucker.
Surprisingly, Tina Turner had a solo country album that did well, and the Pointer Sisters actually got their first big hit and first Grammy win in country music, not disco or pop, with the song, “Fairytale.” Blues legends Esther Phillips and Etta James both released country singles and albums during their careers.
Black female song writers have been even more rare in the industry. Only Alice Randall, a songwriting professor at Vanderbilt University, and the author of the “Gone With the Wind” parody, “The Wind Done Gone,” has had a country music number one hit, “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl), ” sung by Trisha Yearwood in 1994. The first Black female singer with a top 25 country hit was Linda Martell in 1969. Miss Martell even achieved a very high point in country music by being invited to sing on the “Grand Ole Opry” show. The Pointer Sisters also achieved that honor and nervously performed on the show. Anita Pointer continued her career in country music after the demise of the Pointer Sisters in pop music.
In order of success, one can place Linda Martell ( 1969 and ’70), the Pointer Sisters in 1974, Ruby Falls (1975 through 1979), Anita Pointer in 1986, and Dona Mason in 1987 as the riders of the train of Black females getting shots at fame in country music. Rhonda Towns was another up-and-comer who did not make the final cut.
Currently, there are but two Black female singers in country music who still have a major shot at making it big in the industry, Rissi Palmer and Mickey ( Candace Mycale) Guyton. The latter was nominated for Best New Female Vocalist for 2016, but was bested by a white female singer. Although both are great singers, Miss Guyton has the best chance of success. She signed with a very major Nashville record company, Capitol, and is connected with the major league writing talents of Diane Warren (who penned the 1996 worldwide and Grammy-winning hit, “Unbreak My Heart”). Black female singers have not had that kind of double good fortune in country music before.
Should Spensha Baker make it to the final four on The Voice, she should have another solid shot for Black female success in country music, backed by Blake Shelton’s contacts in the industry. As Alice Randall has said, it is and has not really been about the fans of country music—with the occasional racist comment, they will accept anyone with a good song. It has been and continues to be an issue of getting a good agent and getting signed and promoted by a major record company. The financial backers of country music have to take the gamble on Black female singers. The talent is there. A meeting of the minds is what is necessary now.
As a last point, African countries love country music, particularly that imported from the USA. That’s really an anomaly which has many African American visitors to the continent scratching their heads. However, Africa does represent a very big alternative market for the genre, and should be looked into more fully.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.